Balancing lifelong yearning with crisp humor can prove to be daunting, but director Atsuko Hirayanagi’s first feature, Oh Lucy!, is up to the task. While it builds its foundations atop a heap of familiar beats (the quirky loner, the revelatory journey between continents), the story is grasping for something many films of its ilk neglect: unfeigned sincerity.
Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima) is a lonesome office worker who shakes up the humdrum monotony of her routine when she shows up for an English class in a questionable part of town. Far from respectable, the course is taught in a shady hotel by an eccentric, warmhearted American (Josh Hartnett) who bestows upon her the moniker of ‘Lucy.’ Setsuko immediately becomes infatuated with her instructor, even tracking him down when he returns to California, with her overbearing sister (Kaho Minami) tagging along for the ride.
Lucy’s is an identity crisis that we’ve seen before, but Hirayanagi frames it in a light that keeps the viewer on their toes. The escapism from the tedium of everyday existence runs the risk of becoming formulaic – and it occasionally does – but Oh Lucy! doesn’t fall into an easily labeled box. It has a sharp wit, and one that makes the effort to establish the difference between approaching the cultural barrier as a comic device and using it as an easy punchline.
Much like a Smiths track, Oh Lucy! maintains a threaded layer of melancholy hidden beneath it’s deceptively bubbly exterior. As we weave through the absurdities of existence, we are shown the charming idiosyncrasies of this woman’s life, and they often have decidedly darker implications. Delusions can be demonstrably powerful, and here we see how deeply we can become wrapped up within one. In the vein of similar films, Atsuko Hirayanagi demonstrates the profound impact another person can have on your life, even if they only collide with it for a brief moment, but she takes it one step further. Setsuko completely abandons her established life for the fleeting promise of an imagined one.
Of course, it’s impossible to discuss the film without praising Shinobu Terajima’s heartfelt, humanist performance. She keeps the audience rooting for the underdog, even as the character continually displays misguided moral judgement. Setsuko’s revolution of self is perpetuated by Terajima’s spirited subtlety, a calculated harmony of the character’s contradictory attributes. The part could have easily been that of a passive observer, an empty vessel to provide the viewer with an easy pathway toward empathy, but it becomes oh so much more.
Oh Lucy! isn’t flashy or assuming, and it can subsequently, at intervals, fall victim to the uniformity of the genre claimed by Sundance, but its tale is an undeniably endearing one. Hirayanagi isn’t satisfied with cookie-cutter rubrics or uncluttered resolutions. Instead, she probes at the heart of issue at hand, and finds optimism in truth. She is certainly a filmmaker to keep an eye on.